MANHATTAN (CN) - Upholding an Albany woman's conviction for harboring an illegal alien, the 2nd Circuit ordered her to forfeit her 34-room mansion on a bluff overlooking the Mohawk River.
Annie George, who wanted her 2013 conviction overturned, cited a decision later that year by the 2nd Circuit that she said more clearly spelled out the meaning of "harboring" than the judge did at her trial. She also contended that forfeiture was too harsh a penalty.
George, also known as Annie Kolath and Sajimol George, was accused of harboring Valsamma Mathai, also a native of India, who came to the U.S. on a visa to live in New York City and work for a designated employee of the United Nations.
Mathai became an illegal alien when she left that position to begin working for George and her husband in 2005 as a live-in domestic to care for the couple's six children.
She worked in three homes for the Georges, the last being the mansion known as Llenroc in the wealthy rural hamlet of Rexford, located about 20 miles northwest of Albany.
The Georges began living there in 2008, paying $1.87 million for it in 2009. That same year, George's husband, her son and a third man died in a private plane crash in nearby Schenectady County.
Mathai worked for the family until 2011, when a son in India contacted a human trafficking hotline, concerned that his mother was being exploited. Federal authorities removed her from the home.
Mathai later testified that she worked 18-hour days with no time off and slept in a closet.
Annie George was indicted in 2012 on one count of harboring an illegal alien for private financial gain, but was convicted after a five-day trial of harboring without the private-gain enhancement.
She was sentenced to eight months of home detention, five years' probation and was ordered to turn over the mansion.
On appeal, George challenged the instructions given to the jury at trial on the meaning of "harboring," particularly in light of the 2nd Circuit's 2013 decision in U.S. v. Vargas-Cordon that clarified the crime involved both sheltering an illegal alien and also preventing his or her detection by immigration officials.
George contended the concealment aspect of harboring was not conveyed to the jury at her trial.
But the 2nd Circuit disagreed on Wednesday, saying "the district court adequately conveyed both the concealment and substantial facilitation aspects of harboring identified in Vargas-Cordon."
Even though that decision had not yet been handed down when George was convicted, she was entitled to use it to claim plain error on appeal.
Writing for the three-judge panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Reena Raggi noted that prior to the Vargas-Cordon decision, "our precedent had lacked consistency in construing" harboring.
But she pointed out that at George's trial, "when the district court defined harboring as 'afford[ing] shelter,' it made clear that what it meant by sheltering was action that shielded the alien from detection or discovery by the authorities."
And evidence that George acted to hide Mathai from authorities was "overwhelming," Raggi wrote.
Mathai was coached by George to present herself as "a visiting family friend" and told not to discuss her immigration status with anyone, according to the court. George also discouraged her from traveling to India for a wedding, telling her that the trip could lead to her arrest and deportation.
George also failed to document Mathai's employment with the Internal Revenue Service, never filing required W-2 forms or other paperwork, the court said.
"In sum, the evidence, viewed as a whole and in the light most favorable to the government, overwhelmingly demonstrated that George acted with the requisite intent to conceal Mathai's illegal presence in the United States from federal authorities and, thus, was sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to find harboring proved beyond a reasonable doubt," Raggi wrote.
Because a conviction on harboring carries a mandatory forfeiture of real or personal property used to the facilitate the crime, George was ordered to turn over the Rexford mansion, where Mathai worked for three of the years she was in the Georges' employ.
George argued that forfeiture violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on excessive fines, but the appeals panel was not sympathetic.
"She harbored an illegal alien in her home for more than five years in order to secure the alien's unauthorized labor," Raggi wrote. "In doing so, she not only thwarted federal immigration law, but also evaded federal minimum wage and tax laws.
"In these circumstances, the forfeiture of the home that facilitated George's criminal harboring is not constitutionally disproportional."
A footnote in the opinion indicates that George appears to have an equity interest in the mansion of nearly $97,000, based on the purchase price of $1.87 million minus the $1.78 owed on the mortgage in June 2013.
That puts George's equity loss above the $20,000 top of the applicable sentencing guidelines' fine range, but "well below the maximum" statutory fine of $250,000, according to Raggi.
"This is not a case in which the harshness of the forfeiture so exceeds the gravity of the offense of conviction as to indicate gross disproportionality violative of the Constitution," she wrote.
Llenroc, on a 12-acre site that includes space to land a helicopter, was built over eight years by an Albany insurance executive who named it in honor of his university alma mater, Cornell (spelled backwards). It was built in the likeness of Cornell's student center, using Ithaca bluestone quarried near the college.
The home has 15 fireplaces, 10 bathrooms, a 12-car underground garage and an indoor swimming pool shaped like a sailboat.
Before the Georges purchased it, the home was on the market for $12.9 million.
The original owner lost it to foreclosure after his insurance empire collapsed.